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Coats of Many Flavors

For his prize-winning Southern crusted duck recipe, chef Jeremy Smith of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel in Cherokee, N.C., coats duck breast in a crust of pecans and potato chips, and tops it with a creamy wild-mushroom sauce. Photo courtesy of maple leaf farms. Creative breadings and coatings enhance taste and texture without stealing the spotlight

By Karen Weisberg

Out beyond the search for the latest trend is the ever-expanding desire, demand and expectation of chefs and restaurant patrons for center-of-the-plate items to be as farm-to-fork as possible. Working with such consummately fresh items, chefs aim to prepare and apply crusts, breadings and coatings with a light, bright touch. The traditional values of these techniques remain as important as they’ve always been: to add layers of flavors; to retain moisture or juiciness; to impart ethnic flavors and aromas; to create diverse signature dishes that can command higher prices — all with the end-goal of creating a “Wow!” effect, while allowing the quality and flavor of the prized protein to shine through.

Chef Dean James Max is vehement about sourcing and serving as much farm-to-table and “boat-to-table” product as possible. As founder and president of DJM Culinary Inc., based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he’s in a position to make it happen in the handful of restaurants he operates in partnership with Marriott hotels in Florida, Ohio and Texas, plus a private partnership location in the Cayman Islands.

“As a small ‘chain,’ I do repeat some recipes in several locations, but I also have new things going on every day,” Max says. “Now, thanks to economies of scale, I’m freed up to focus on food, and behind the line, getting a different perspective from different properties.”

When it comes to applying coatings, breadings and crusts to seafood and fish, Max aims for a balance of texture. “We try to protect the fish, while giving it texture,” he says. “Halibut, for example, is very lean with skin that dries out easily; so you don’t want a heavy sear, and adding a crunchy texture to its skin will lose the delicacy of the fish.”

At 3030 Ocean at Fort Lauderdale’s Harbor Beach Marriott, Max takes sourdough or buttery brioche (avoiding a rustic bread that typically has deep holes), slices it thin, removes the crust, then rolls it out with a rolling pin and cuts it into a rectangle to fit the top of the filet.

“We sauté the fish in oil and butter, bread side down, for about two minutes on medium-high heat, then finish roasting it in the oven. Once it’s out of the oven, we flip it over so it has this beautiful, delicate, moist flesh that’s never touched the pan,” he explains. “The bread is like an edible barrier.” He often serves the halibut with complementary farm-to-table sides like roasted heirloom beets.

Roasted mushrooms can also be the basis for a light yet flavorful crust or coating for halibut and other “dry” fish such as sole, flounder and turbot, Max suggests.

“I might roast mushrooms — like a really flavorful maitake or black trumpet mushroom — then finely chop and let cool before folding them with butter and chives,” he says. “Then I’ll spread the mixture on top of a dry fish that needs butter basting. If nice and moist, the mushrooms stay together and the butter melts into the fish as it’s baking.”

Max is a staunch proponent of glazing, albeit with a light touch, and deems it “a most important technique,” and one he especially likes to utilize with grouper.

A favorite technique is to lightly season the fish with salt, pepper and oil, and sear or grill for a smoky char on each side. He then spreads a spoonful of glaze on the fish and roasts it in the oven, continuing to baste during roasting.

His go-to glaze is a simmered blend of apricot jelly, soy sauce and grated ginger. “The sugar of the jelly and the spice of the ginger gives you a caramelization that results in a beautiful flavor of smoky sweetness,” Max says. He further notes that a fatty beef cut — perhaps ribeye or skirt steak — “would be fantastic with a pepper jelly in place of the apricot in an identical preparation.”

In San Francisco, MarketBar’s chef Adam Mali prepares a signature persillade garnish for his lamb dish by using chives, thyme, rosemary, mint and lavender. Photo courtesy of marketbar. UNCOMMON COATINGS
During the past four decades, The Common Man Family of Restaurants, with headquarters in Ashland, N.H., has grown slowly and steadily by serving great American fare — often in historic and idyllic locations — throughout New Hampshire. Today, the family-owned enterprise boasts 18 locations in an array of seven distinct food concepts.

While often including hearty New England-style comfort foods on the menu, Roland von Gunten, the company’s Swiss-trained culinary director, also aims to keep his crusts, breadings and coatings on the light and bright side to enhance but not overpower center-of-the-plate items. Popcorn, potato chips and fried angel-hair pasta each become unique coatings in von Gunten’s kitchen.

Currently, Potato Chip-Crusted Trophy Trout with Pistachio-Basil Butter is probably the No. 1 selling item on the Common Man menu, von Gunten points out.

“We fry our own variously flavored chips, plus there are always broken chips to be utilized in preparing this coating, one that works really well on trout,” he says. To prepare a nice, light-yet-crusty topping, he suggests a quick chop — not too fine — in the Robot Coupe. He notes the versatility of this topping for varying flavor profiles.

“If you want to do a Trout Milanese for an Italian profile, add garlic, fresh basil and Parmesan cheese — that soaks up oil from the chips and makes the coating even crispier,” he says. “You get the sharp Parmesan flavor plus that buttery, creamy mouthfeel.”

To create a Tex-Mex signature, von Gunten suggests adding chipotle and ancho chile powder to the chip base; turmeric and paprika bring a Moroccan/Middle Eastern profile.

To prepare the pistachio-basil butter that is an integral component as well as complement to the potato-chip crust, von Gunten slightly roasts then finely chops green pistachio nuts, adding them to basil, butter, garlic, salt and pepper, plus a bit of lemon rind.

“We whip this butter mixture, then roll it in plastic wrap and chill. When the pan-seared trout is ready to be served, we top it with a slice of the butter,” he says. “The whipped butter melts more evenly into the fish, penetrating through the crust instead of just running off.”

For a chicken dish with a “real Italian profile,” von Gunten opts for an angel-hair pasta “breading,” created by deep-frying the pasta for about 15 to 20 seconds. He then prepares a 50/50 mix of the fried angel hair (dried and broken into small bits) and panko, chosen for its toasty-crisp lightness. He uses this pasta-panko coating for chicken breast that’s been stuffed with fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil, plus a bit of balsamic vinegar.

“We’ll dredge it first in flour, then dip it into an egg wash, then into the pasta coating,” von Gunten says. He pan-sears the coated chicken in hot olive oil until golden brown on both sides, then bakes it in the oven. It’s topped with marinara sauce and a sprinkle of fresh Parmesan, and served with pasta.

At MarketBar, the 200-seat eatery in San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building, Executive Chef Adam Mali, a self-proclaimed lamb fan, is one of many chefs returning to the traditional persillade garnish of chopped parsley and garlic mixed with breadcrumbs.

“I do a slightly different version of the classic persillade coating — emphasizing more herbs and freshness.” Mali takes persillade in a different direction by incorporating chives, thyme, rosemary, mint and lavender. “You coat it on the lamb to get it brown, then coat again,” he says. “I’ve also seen it with game meats and on poultry.”

Mali also does a pomegranate-soy glaze on lamb loin to create almost a “candied-lamb” texture. “Just searing with salt and pepper is fine, but a glaze like this gives it a texture contrast.” Mali reduces pomegranate juice down to a syrup, then adds soy sauce, a bit of ginger and garlic plus a drop of sesame oil. After quickly searing the lamb loin, he brushes the top with glaze then puts it in the oven. To his pleasure, he’s found that pomegranate seeds not only serve as a fitting garnish but “also act as a bit of a crust; you bite into it and get a burst of pomegranate,” he notes. “It completes the glaze and adds a freshness.”

Pleased how this coating contrasts nicely with the richness of proteins like lamb and pork, Mali suggests tweaks to expand the flavor signature of the glaze. For a Moroccan profile, he says, “I’d infuse the pomegranate syrup with cinnamon, coriander, a bit of cumin and some dried fruit as a coating — like a persillade.” He suggests brushing the syrup base on the protein, then adding a crust of breadcrumbs plus a bit of chopped fruit, garlic and herbs such as thyme and parsley.

As part of its bar-food menu, Saltgrass Steak House’s take on happy-hour chicken wings is spice-rubbed, fried and topped with cilantro, green onions and Cotija cheese. Photo courtesy of saltgrass steak house. EN CROÛTE ENDINGS
With the majority of Landry’s 32 Chart House Restaurant locations along the east and west coastlines, menus boast a multitude of seafood items, many built with distinctive layers of flavor and texture.

When it comes to fish, especially salmon, Corporate Executive Chef Rich Penny finds his customers really enjoy an en-croûte coating using puff pastry.

“We’ll spread creamy spinach over the fish, top that with hand-picked jumbo lump crab, then wrap puff pastry completely around the fish,” he explains. He gives the pastry an egg wash, then bakes the dish until the crust is golden brown and begins to rise.

“You can take a fish, even a less-expensive or lesser-known variety, add an inviting topping and customers will order it,” Penny contends. “Plus, your menu prices will still be in line.”

Filet mignon is another classic protein to benefit from an en-croûte coating. Penny first gives it a wet rub, then lightly sears it on all sides; he’ll then wrap it in bacon, followed by puff pastry, applying a brush of fresh whipped eggs prior to roasting it to customer request.

As concept executive chef for Saltgrass Steak House, Ric Rosser oversees 47 Saltgrass plus 40 Claim Jumper locations (part of the Landry’s family of restaurants). Rosser can tell you that in the Carolinas, folks want a dry rub, but in Nashville, they want sweet sauce or spicy sauce — and these are duly noted regional preferences. But he is heartened to see an overarching current trend across geographic divides: “I see good food being done however the chef wants it done — with fresh food that’s not over-seasoned.”

For Rosser, this simplicity in flavor is a favored approach when it comes to steak. “Everybody wants to put rubs on a steak — but here, people just want a steak with a seasoning that lightly lifts the palate, like sea salt from Maine or garlic salt. It’s really about combining the right seasoning with a good steak,” he says. “At the end of the day, they want the perfect blend of seasoning plus the perfect steak — steak is king!”

For the happy hour/small plates menu at Saltgrass, Rosser called on more complexity for the recently created chicken wings with cilantro, green onion salad and Cotija cheese.

“I’m taking chicken wings and cooking them in bacon fat and oil for about one and a half hours — so I’m cooking confit-style, but here, it’s bacon fat, not duck fat,” he says with a grin. “I cool them down and encrust them with chile pepper and sugar, and toss them into the fryer for a minute and a half.” The wings are served with cilantro, green onions, fresh lemon juice and topped with Cotija cheese. “You’ve got three amazing flavors going on: the savoriness of bacon fat, the sweet heat of the sugar-pepper coating, plus the fresh tang and crispness of the cilantro salad,” he explains.

“The majority of people I deal with go out once a week and want good food,” he sums up. “And that dish is worth going out for!”


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